TV food commercials disproportionately stimulate the brains of overweight teenagers, including the regions that control pleasure, taste and - most surprisingly - the mouth, suggesting they mentally simulate unhealthy eating habits that make it difficult to lose weight later in life.
The prevalence of food advertising and adolescent obesity has increased dramatically over the past 30 years, and research has linked the number of television shows viewed during childhood with greater risk for obesity. In particular, considerable evidence suggests that exposure to food marketing promotes eating habits that contribute to obesity.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the Dartmouth researchers examined brain responses to two dozen fast food commercials and non-food commercials in overweight and healthy-weight adolescents ages 12-16. The commercials were embedded within an age-appropriate show, "The Big Bang Theory," so the participants were unaware of the study's purpose.
The results show that in all the adolescents, the brain regions involved in attention and focus (occipital lobe, precuneus, superior temporal gyri and right insula) and in processing rewards (nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal cortex) were more strongly active while viewing food commercials than non-food commercials. Also, adolescents with higher body fat showed greater reward-related activity than healthy weight teens in the orbitofrontal cortex and in regions associated with taste perception. The most surprising finding was that the food commercials also activated the overweight adolescents' brain region that controls their mouths. This region is part of the larger sensory system that is important for observational learning.
"This finding suggests the intriguing possibility that overweight adolescents mentally simulate eating while watching food commercials," says lead author Kristina Rapuano, a graduate student in Dartmouth's Brain Imaging Lab. "These brain responses may demonstrate one factor whereby unhealthy eating behaviors become reinforced and turned into habits that potentially hamper a person's ability lose weight later in life."